[pl_amazon_book_order src="http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=perslibedige-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0307266516&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1<1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr"]After reading the amazing history contained in Jerusalem, The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, I couldn’t help but be thankful that our Founding Fathers established a country that allows all citizens the rights to their own religious beliefs and keeps government out of it. (At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work.) As a lesson about what happens when governments and religion become intertwined, Jerusalem, though, is a cautionary tale. Because the saga of conflict told in Jerusalem not only sheds light on an astounding history of warfare among countries, empires, ethnic groups and civilizations, it demonstrates what happens when militaristic religious leaders decide to rid the Earth of their rivals. The result is a kind of never-ending ethnic cleansing.
The fact that Jerusalem is the center of the spiritual world for so many people seems to make politics there frighteningly complex and deadly. Consequently, if you have any interest in understanding why the area in and around Jerusalem is such a contentious piece of real estate, Jerusalem explicates, in exquisite historical detail, the thousands of years of fighting over a piece of ground that so many people want to possess. Sometimes, the details supplied by Montefiore are a bit overwhelming. But the historical tidbits, footnotes, archeological gossip and descriptions of what we know or think we know about what historical figures did to each other in this part of the planet are never less than fascinating and illuminating.
Near the beginning of the book, Montefiore describes a time when Jerusalem was ruled by a confederation of tribes who were challenged by the Philistines, “part of the Sea Peoples, who originated in the Aegean (Sea).” The Israelites led first by Saul and then by David beat them back. As king, David established his stronghold at Jerusalem because it was a demilitarized zone between the northern and southern tribes.
Later on, though, rulers of the various kingdoms in and around Jerusalem would periodically invade and kill many of the local inhabitants, making off with gold from the city’s temple. And then, in between invasions and sieges, members of the ruling class would battle with each other for power, brothers killing each other in order to take control, children killing parents, in-laws plotting each other’s doom and generals using assassinations and bloodbaths to establish their own dynasties.
At the same time, the ruling Jewish kings twice built magnificent temples in Jerusalem (each eventually destroyed), filling them with golden treasures (all eventually looted) and established the city as a living, holy shrine.
But the battles never stopped.
In one typical period, as the Assyrians invaded, Israel’s King Ahab joined with Judah and Syria to repel the would-be conquerors. But soon, the three anti-Assyrian partners began to war with each other, civil wars broke out and King Ahab was killed by his own troops. In the power vacuum, a general named Jehu decided it was time to do away with the rest of the royal family. He stacked the heads of Ahab’s 70 sons in a gruesome pile at the one of the city’s gates, killed the new king who was trying to succeed Ahab and, for good measure, murdered the visiting king of Judah. Ahab’s wife, Queen Jezebel, was unceremoniously thrown out of a palace window, “pulverized” by chariots and fed to the dogs. But Ahab’s family was soon in control again. One of Jezebel’s daughters, Athalia, took power, killing every prince she could get her hands on (all of whom were her own grandchildren). She made Baal the state religion and set up idols in the Temple. Athalia, though, was eventually murdered, as were her priests.
This kind of back-and-forth killing was typical. Eventually, the Assyrians came back for more booty, and the Egyptians took a turn invading the area. When those empires backed off, the Babylonians arrived for their share. A couple of hundred years later, the Persians took out the Babylonians, followed by the Greeks and later the Romans.
Destruction And Conflict
Soon after Jesus was crucified, relations between Rome and the Jewish rulers of Jerusalem reached a tipping point. Roman legions marched into the city, looted it, burned it to the ground and slaughtered most its residents, hauling many of the survivors back to Rome as slaves and unwilling participants in bloody shows at the Coliseum. For a time, the city was a camp for Roman soldiers.
Later, when the Romans eventually left, the city settled down into relative obscurity, lapsing into low level anarchy before being invaded by European Crusaders.
Today, of course, Jerusalem is in the center of the controversy between Palestinians and Israelis, each group claiming that they should control the area. After reading Jerusalem, you won’t wonder that the city and the area around it is a continual source of conflict. You may wonder why it isn’t worse. Montefiore warns, “… there have always been two Jerusalems, the temporal and the celestial, both ruled more by faith and emotion than by reason and facts.”